Democrats’ Growing Problems With Independent Voters on the Senate Map

Stuart Rothenberg March 26, 2014 · 9:45 AM EDT

While the nation’s (and news media’s) focus on Malaysian Airlines flight 370 gave Democrats a couple of weeks to catch their collective breath, the 2014 election cycle continues to look increasingly dangerous for President Barack Obama and his party.

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal (March 5-9) and CBS News/New York Times (Feb. 19-23) surveys contained little in the way of good news for Democrats — and recent GOP Senate recruiting successes in Colorado and New Hampshire put two more Senate contests into play.

Strategists in both parties agree that Democratic enthusiasm isn’t where it needs to be, especially when compared to GOP voters, who currently look eager to run into a burning building if that is what it takes to express their anger during the midterm elections.

The president’s job approval rating among Democrats stood at 74 percent in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, and the Republican nature of the electorate in the Florida special election ought to be of considerable concern for Democratic operatives.

Democrats are counting on registering new Democratic voters in some states and turning out traditional Democratic constituencies (younger voters and Latinos, in particular) at a higher rate than in the past, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has promised to spend $60 million to put operatives on the ground in battleground states. Still, it isn’t clear that any of that will pay off in additional victories.

Attitudinally, independents once again more closely resemble GOP voters than Democrats.

The CBS News/New York Times survey found that while Democrats continued to approve of the president (76 percent approve), Republicans (only 7 percent approve) and independents (only 37 percent approve) did not, and while 60 percent of Democrats said the economy is “very good” or “fairly good,” only 17 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of independents agreed. In addition, Democrats were upbeat about the direction of the country, while Republicans and independents were not.

When independents were asked whether each party has “the same priorities for the country as you have,” 35 percent of respondents said the Republican Party does, while only 30 percent agreed that the Democratic Party does.

The last time independents looked that much like Republicans was during the 2010 midterm cycle, and they behaved like Republicans. That year, independents voted for Republican House candidates by a whopping 56 percent to 37 percent — a GOP advantage of 19 points.

Four years earlier, during the 2006 midterms, when a Democratic electoral wave sent a message of dissatisfaction to President George W. Bush and the GOP, independents voted Democratic by a margin of 57 percent to 39 percent.

In the late February CBS News/New York Times survey, independents favored generic GOP candidates by 14 points over generic Democrats, 43 percent to 29 percent, even though Republicans had only a 3-point advantage among all respondents registered to vote.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found that among independents who don’t lean toward either party (admittedly only 14 percent of the electorate), Republicans held a 9-point advantage, 39 percent to 30 percent, with almost one-third of respondents not sure.

Democrats can hope that this cycle’s independents really are closet Republicans — presidential candidate Mitt Romney won independents by 5 points in 2012, according to the exit poll — but dismissing the president’s problems with independent voters seems like a risky strategy that looks dangerously like denial.

Obviously, a weak Democratic turnout combined with a strong advantage for the GOP among independents would produce the worst of all possible outcomes for Democrats. That’s why Democratic groups and allies are attempting to ratchet up certain themes and issues — the environment, minimum wage and the Koch brothers, for example — to try to boost Democratic enthusiasm.

Of course, the map continues to be a big part of Democrats’ problems, particularly in the fight for the Senate, where Republicans must net six seats to win the majority.

Seven of the 12 Republican Senate takeover opportunities are in states lost by Obama in 2012. Also, three of the four better GOP targets in states that went for Obama in 2012 — Colorado, New Hampshire and Iowa — were viewed as swing states throughout the 2012 presidential campaign. (Virginia was also a swing state, while Michigan was always a longer shot for the GOP.)

Obama didn’t crack 42 percent of the vote in six GOP Senate targets — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — and he won Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa and Virginia with less than 52 percent of the vote in each.

While Republicans aren’t likely to oust their foes in solidly Democratic states this November (though Sen. Mark S. Kirk did exactly that in Illinois in 2010), they certainly have a chance to win Senate contests in states that went for Obama only narrowly two years ago, as they did in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire during the president’s first midterm elections.

According to the exit poll in Iowa in 2012, Obama carried the state almost entirely because of his 14-point victory among independents. Had he lost independents by four or five points, he would have almost certainly lost the state. That ought to worry Democrats who now assume their Senate nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley, will coast to a victory in November against a less-than-intimidating GOP field.

Fortunately for Democrats, the elections won’t take place next week or next month. Things could improve for the president and his party, and Republican primary voters certainly could help undermine the GOP’s prospects in November.

But it is at least equally true that the political environment could deteriorate even further for Democrats. In four of the past seven midterm elections, the president’s party has lost six seats or more, and the current trajectory of the 2014 elections suggests losses of that general magnitude.

At this point at least, anything less would be a relief for Democrats.